History of Facial Makeup

Cosmetics may have changed throughout history, but beauty is always fashionable.

Photo: BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images

From the simple ore and coal dust makeup of ancient Egypt to the silicone and baked shadows of today, facial makeup has a rich and colorful history. Once reserved for only high-ranking royalty, makeup is now a common beauty tool for women of all social statuses. Facial makeup may have evolved from dirt and ashes, but the basic principle of highlighting a woman’s best features is a timeless concept.

Ancient Makeup

The use of facial makeup dates to the pharaohs and prophets of Egyptian times. The iconic green eyes depicted in many Egyptian historical records was a powder made from crushed malachite stones, which was brushed over the eyes. For extra oomph, Egyptians dipped wet feathers in kohl or stove ashes and brushed it along the eyelids and over lashes. To bring a glow to the face, red clay was dried into powder and brushed over the cheeks. Makeup was typically reserved for the royal families, although commoners would apply facial makeup for special occasions including weddings and funerals.

Pale and Proper

During the Middle Ages, many women stopped glamming it up, as makeup was discouraged by church leaders. The style shifted from rich and healthy pigmentation to pale, translucent skin. Nearly white skin was a sign of beauty and refinement, and women would slather pastes made from chalk or flour over their skin to achieve pale perfection. The eyes would then be lined with dark pigments made of indigo or coal to make the eyes appear large and alluring. Women so desired pale complexions that they subjected themselves to life-threatening side effects of toxic substances such as lead-based pastes in the pursuit of beauty.

Not So Proper

As society drove women to be more delicate and ladylike, makeup use was restricted to ladies involved in cabaret-like shows and prostitution. These ladies of the night slathered on makeup and crushed fragrant flowers against their skin to draw in paying customers. “Proper” ladies abstained from heavy makeup, although daring women would dab small amounts of powdered clay or berry juice on their cheeks for a rosy glow.

Modern Makeup

As the 20th century rolled in, the taboo surrounding facial makeup gradually vanished and women around the globe began to regularly paint their faces. The cosmetic industry became more regulated in large countries, weeding out hazardous chemicals and producing makeup made from safe ingredients. Countless cosmetic products are produced every year and, while these can be applied in innumerable combinations, the basic idea of letting your true beauty shine never goes out of style.

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